Heresy Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Are you a Christian? Are you sure? A new survey finds that most American evangelicals embrace heretical notions. More evidence that the real meaning of “evangelical” isn’t really theological, but something else.religion as personal belief

Christianity Today reports on new data from Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. Even among evangelical believers, majorities of respondents disavowed orthodox theology. As CT reported,

When it comes to Americans with “evangelical beliefs”. . . the survey found that a majority say:

  • Most people are basically good (52%)

  • God accepts the worship of all religions (51%)

  • Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father (78%)

The last point, especially, has a long and contentious history. The ancient church kind of settled it at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but as this survey proves, ideas about a three-part God are still thinly settled.

Why does it matter? Just like other large religious bodies (by way of comparison, ask any self-described Catholic about Catholic theology), evangelical Protestantism in practice is not defined by theology. Rather, American evangelicalism is a cultural identity that includes religious ideas, but isn’t actually based primarily on religious ideas. To make things more confusing, most religious identities assume that they are based primarily on theological definitions.

In other words, when you ask an evangelical what makes her an evangelical, she’ll likely give you a religious answer. But if you ask her about actual beliefs, she is likely not to know or care much about evangelical theology. The reasons she identifies as evangelical are described in religious language, but they are really a bigger mix of family, tradition, politics, and culture.

This was a big part of my argument in Fundamentalist U. If we really want to understand American evangelicalism we need to push beyond and behind the official dogma that evangelicals have used officially to define themselves. Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, the leaders of evangelical colleges had to continually prove to a nervous evangelical public that they maintained the standards of evangelical culture—even when those standards weren’t really based in conservative evangelical theology.

To cite just one example, when fundamentalist intellectual J. Gresham Machen left Princeton Seminary in 1929 to open his own, purer Westminster Seminary, he got grief from other college leaders because Machen allowed his seminarians to drink alcohol.

There was no theological reason to ban alcohol, Professor Machen concluded, so he didn’t. Other college leaders were scandalized. The ban on alcohol might not have been a theological requirement–at least for Presbyterians–but it was written so deeply into the cultural bones of America’s conservative evangelicals that it had assumed sacred status.

We can see similar examples everywhere we look today. For instance, why was administrator Randy Beckum chastised at Mid-America? Theologically, there can be little reason to criticize a reminder that Christians need to put their faith before their patriotism.  Culturally, however, that can come as a shocking notion.

Evangelicals like to talk about doing more than just avoiding sin, but even avoiding the appearance of sin. If we want to make sense of the complicated realities of evangelical identity, we need to add a cumbersome caveat. It’s not only that evangelicals need to avoid the appearance of sin, but that they need to even avoid the appearance of things that aren’t really sins but America’s evangelicals think they are. On the flip side, they are free to embrace heresy as long as no one seems to care.

Postcards from Christian America

Is America a “Christian” nation? What do we even mean by that question? Historically, as I argued in my recent book, even secular conservatives have tended to assume that the United States needs Christianity. Is that still the case? Will it be the case for the foreseeable future? A couple of new polls offer contradictory impressions.

LifeWay, an evangelical research organization, asked 1,000 Americans if they thought God and America had a “special relationship.” Most did. Fifty-three percent overall agreed. In different categories, the percentages went up. Just over two-thirds of self-described evangelical Protestants thought America and God had a special bond. African Americans believed it (62%) more commonly than white Americans (51%). Tellingly, among the highest percentages of agreement were from white evangelicals over 45, seven of ten of whom agreed (71%).

Special friends?

Special friends?

Perhaps this demography helps explain a seeming paradox. Another Fourth of July-timed research report from the Public Religion Research Institute asserted that the numbers of Americans who think the USA is a “Christian nation” is declining, fastest among the young. Only about a third of respondents agreed that the USA is now and has always been a Christian nation. Older people tend to believe it more often.

What does it mean to think of the country as a “Christian” nation? These polls are tricky, since different respondents can think different things, even if they check the same boxes. For some respondents, the idea of a Christian nation likely evokes a tight bond between public spaces and evangelical religion. In a properly Christian nation, some think, public schools and meetings ought to be guided by Christian prayers and ideas.

Other people might simply mean that the USA has a majority of Christians. If we understand “Christian nation” in this sense, it means public spaces can still be secularized, even if a majority of citizens share a Christian faith.

As I’ve argued in the past, it is a mistake to try to pinpoint one point in time when America turned into a secular society. It is a mistake to try to understand the history of evangelicals in America as having changed at a specific point in time from an unchallenged majority to a beleaguered minority. We hear these sorts of claims all the time, of course, especially when the Supreme Court issues a seemingly anti-Christian decision.

Booming with boomers...

Booming with boomers…

From an historical perspective, evangelical Protestants have always held enormous influence over the entirety of American society. Over the long haul, certainly, evangelicalism’s influence in public life has waned.

Does that mean America is moving away from its history as a “Christian” nation?

Or does it only mean that the United States is now and has always been a pluralistic society, with evangelicals battling for control with all kinds of other religious and non-religious groups?